The flu shot you should be getting every year is for influenza, which is something completely different than catching a stomach bug. While the flu and stomach flu may share some characteristics, such as a fever and sweats, there are obvious symptoms that set them apart from each other. The stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, occurs when your gastrointestinal tract is irritated and inflamed. Read on to learn more about stomach flu, the differences between a stomach bug, influenza, and food poisoning, and how to prevent and treat stomach viruses for the upcoming winter.

Stomach Flu vs. Influenza

It’s fundamentally simple to be able to discriminate between the stomach flu versus influenza, once you’re familiar with the symptoms. The problem is, many people are unfamiliar with types of viruses believe that stomach flu is also the regular flu, which isn’t true. Getting a flu shot is important and will protect you against influenza, but it can’t protect you from a stomach virus. The actual influenza virus is an upper respiratory virus, with strains that are different each year. (This is why you need a new vaccination every year). However, the stomach flu is a virus in the gastrointestinal tract, which is sometimes even caused by bacteria or parasites. 

If you are suffering from the actual flu, your symptoms will be apparent in the form of muscle aches, fever, cough and/or chest congestion, and fatigue. While you may have some of these symptoms with a stomach bug, the stomach and GI disruption involved with having gastroenteritis should be a clear sign that you do not have influenza. Still, it is always a good idea to be evaluated by a medical professional. 

Stomach Flu Symptoms

Many of the symptoms surrounding viral gastroenteritis are indicative of an irritated GI tract. These include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, muscle aches, and a low-grade fever. The fever associated with viral gastroenteritis is typically low, while with influenza, fevers can spike. Within one to three days of infection, many patients begin to see symptoms, although symptoms can present in as little as 12 hours after exposure. Symptoms typically last three to seven days, though they could last as long as 10 in some cases. Those with any type of stomach flu symptoms should not go to school or work. Generally speaking, the cardinal rule is to be fever- and diarrhea-free for at least 24 hours before returning to regular duties. 

The exact cause of the stomach bug can help determine how long the symptoms will last. If you visit a physician, they will likely run tests that can determine the exact cause and may be able to offer you a more exact timeline. More importantly, knowing the cause of your gastroenteritis can help them treat the condition. For example, some bacterial causes of stomach flu can be treated with antibiotics. However, stomach flu can also be easily confused with diarrheal problems caused by bacteria such as Clostridium difficile, or food poisoning symptoms. 

Stomach Flu Versus Food Poisoning

The symptoms of stomach bugs and food poisoning are extremely similar, with vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle aches and cramps. It is important to see your doctor so that they can help you discern between the two. Food poisoning is caused by infectious organisms, while the stomach bug is often caused by a virus such as rotavirus. To be able to properly treat you if there are complications, your doctor will want to run some tests. If you suspect food poisoning, it is important to see a doctor as there is a certain type of food poisoning known as botulism. Botulism is very serious and could be deadly if not treated, so it’s always best to be on the safe side. 

What Causes Food Poisoning?

While the causes of a stomach bug are often the rotavirus (or norovirus), food poisoning can be caused by several different factors. Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus and three known culprits when it comes to food poisoning. Of course, bacteria have to find a way into your system somehow, and it’s usually via one of the following factors:

  • Soft or unpasteurized cheeses, such as Brie
  • Contaminated food or water
  • Consuming raw or undercooked eggs
  • Eating raw fish or oysters
  • Vegetables and fruits that have not been washed 
  • Undercooked rice
  • Unpasteurized milk, juice, or cider

Unlike a stomach bug, coming in contact with an infected person with food poisoning is different. It’s impossible to pass food poisoning onto someone else. Although you cannot infect anyone, it’s still a good idea to rest for a few days until you feel better again. 

When to See a Doctor for Stomach Flu

Indeed, many patients don’t require specific treatment for the stomach flu, other than plenty of rest. Unless you are referring to very young children or the elderly, or are a patient who is immunocompromised, many patients are more content sitting at home, letting the flu ride its course. In many cases, the best treatment for a stomach bug is plenty of rest and proper fluids such as juices and sports drinks. However, there are some cases where you should see a doctor. If you see your fever rise above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or you notice blood in your vomit or diarrhea, a doctor should be consulted immediately. Also contact your doctor if:

  • You are vomiting/cannot keep liquids down for more than 24 hours
  • Are in extreme pain or discomfort
  • Appear to be dehydrated (symptoms include excessive thirst, dry mouth, little to no urine, weakness, and fatigue)

When it comes to infants and young children, a doctor should be contacted if the fever rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. An infant should have a wet diaper at least every six hours, and if this does not occur, consult a physician or take the child to the nearest urgent care or emergency room. 

Treating a Stomach Bug

There is no tried-and-true treatment your physician can give you when it comes to gastroenteritis or even food poisoning. However, if you’re severely affected, your doctor may prescribe or recommend certain treatments to help get you better faster. In rare cases, specific bacterial causes may warrant antibiotics. If you have a serious case of the stomach bug and can’t keep liquid down, most likely your doctor will refer you to the emergency room, where you can be treated with intravenous saline and other fluids to help rehydrate you. You may be prescribed an anti-nausea medication so you are able to start eating again, fostering a quick return to health. In most cases, however, your doctor will likely give you advice in the form of home remedies to get you back to health. 

Home Remedies for Stomach Flu

The best thing you can do after vomiting has ceased is to drink plenty of fluids. Sports drinks with electrolytes or Pedialyte are the most recommended, but you may tolerate juice or water better in the beginning. You don’t want to return to work or school to early and infect others, so get plenty of rest while you can. When you are able to eat again, well-tolerated foods include cereals, bananas, whole grains, breads (or toast), apples, and potatoes. Dairy, alcohol, caffeine, or spicy foods may upset your stomach, so be cautious of any of these items until you feel completely well.

Preventing the Stomach Bug

It’s good to remember that the flu vaccine can’t prevent the stomach bug. The best way to avoid catching gastroenteritis or even the common cold during any month of the year is to wash your hands thoroughly. Infants at two months of age can be vaccinated against rotavirus, so this is a good idea to help protect your children. The most common causes of the stomach bug are norovirus or rotavirus, and it is rarely caused by bacteria, although it is possible. This means that taking antibiotics in the hopes of preventing stomach flu isn’t a viable choice, as antibiotics cannot prevent or treat viral infections. 

If you need more information about digestive health or need to be evaluated for a chronic gastrointestinal disturbance, request an appointment at GI Associates and Endoscopy Center today. We have three separate locations, including an office in Flowood, to help meet all of your GI, stomach, and gut health needs.

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